Gavin Lawrence and Chris Mulkey
in Pure Confidence
(© Carol Rosegg)
Gavin Lawrence and Chris Mulkey
in Pure Confidence
(© Carol Rosegg)
A fast horse and unbreakable self-assurance are the means by which Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence), a slave in the antebellum South, reaches freedom in Carlyle Brown's beautifully written and elegantly crafted historical drama Pure Confidence, which is receiving its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters in an admirable if uneven production from Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theatre.

Simon doesn't literally ride the horse -- named "Pure Confidence" -- to liberation. Instead, he uses his skills as a jockey to earn respect from the white men whom he serves, particularly the horse's owner, Colonel Wiley Johnson (Chris Mulkey), as well as the money that he hopes will one day buy him his freedom. Before he reaches this juncture though, Simon uses his share of the purses that he wins each week to buy his very own horse, as well as the freedom of the woman he loves, Caroline (Christiana Clark), a slave employed as a housemaid by the Colonel's forward-thinking wife Mattie (Karen Landry).

While the first half of Brown's play unfolds in the months leading up to the Civil War, the second half takes place in Saratoga during the Reconstruction. Despite their hard-won freedom, Simon and Caroline find that they have made little progress in the world and, in fact, might be worse off than they were prior to the war. She's a menial working for "strangers" and he's a bellhop working for a bigoted Irishman (Mark Sieve) at one of the resort town's hotels. There, the couple has a not-so-coincidental reunion with the Colonel and Mattie, one that is not only awkward, but decidedly bittersweet as the white couple attempts to convince their former slaves to return to the south.

While the little-known slice of racing history fascinates, it's the human drama that proves incontrovertibly compelling, particularly given Lawrence's winning turn as the cocky, smart-as-a-whip Simon and Clark's performance as Caroline, which gracefully and powerfully communicates the character's growth from timidity and defeat to assurance and forcefulness.

It is unfortunate, however that the work from the other members of the ensemble proves decidedly uneven, and director Marion McClinton serves up a sometimes sluggish staging. Sieve's work as the hotel manager is deliciously repugnant, but his performance in the first act as an arrogant Southerner with political aspirations borders on caricature. Mulkey's turn as the Colonel has a certain two-dimensional quality throughout the show. Only Landry (whose Southern accent for the spitfire Mattie varies throughout) creates a performance that feels as complex as those delivered by Lawrence and Clark.

Luckily, the strength of Brown's script and the two central performances are enough to pull audiences through Pure Confidence, which emerges a winner -- if only by a nose.